January Dawn

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The End Unless . . .

Chapter 69 The Grand Dilemma is my last chapter.

If you have read this far and have any comments, they are welcome. I've thought of publishing this as an ebook. Your opinion on that would be especially welcome.

Chapter 69 The Grand Dilemma

The Faith and Science Conference at Ogden and the succeeding conferences at Glacier View (an Adventist youth camp in Colorado) and in Denver highlighted the grand dilemma the church faces when it comes to earth history.

In Ogden, well-known Adventist theologians presented papers arguing that all of the attempts to “reinterpret” the Bible story so it was congruent with the geologic time scale were distortions of the clear meaning of the text. When the Bible speaks of creation in six days, the “days” it has in mind are regular, 24-hour days. They are not epochs or ages. The “creation week” is not a poetic reference to episodic acts of God spread over eons of time. It was a regular week that climaxed in the Sabbath.

In the past Adventists and other Christians have proposed various schemes to coordinate the fossil record and Genesis. One of the more notable Adventist attempts was Jack Provonsha's proposal of a Satanic creation prior to creation week. The fossils are a record of his work! In Ogden and in the succeeding conferences no mediating position or “gap theory” was considered worthy of the slightest consideration. We face a stark choice: an earth history derived from the Bible story–6 days/6000 years –or an earth history derived from geology–millions and billions of years. There is no middle ground.

The Adventist reading of the Bible is strongly supported by most contemporary liberal Bible scholarship. Liberal scholars have little patience with attempts to read Genesis through the lenses of contemporary world views. It is an ancient book understandable to an ancient audience

One Adventist theologian, Fritz Guy, retired so his job was not at risk, presented a paper at the first conference in Ogden arguing that the point of Genesis is theology not geology. He argued that attempting to use Genesis as a guide for interpreting the geologic column inescapably leads us into a dead end. We are using the book to answer questions it does not address.

According to Guy, Genesis is best understood as a theological declaration regarding the ultimate source, meaning and purpose of life. This truth stands regardless of our geological theories. How can evolution with its dreary history of predation and pain be reconciled with a God of love? Guy argues this is answered in part by the Cross. God is present in suffering, not just in tranquility and bliss. And it is no more difficult a problem than the question of God’s integrity if we argue he created a world that appears to be old but in reality isn't.

Guy's paper created a stir in the conference. These ideas were common outside of Adventism, but here was someone inside the church boldly arguing for us to let go of our fundamentalist interpretation of Genesis. In the final conference in Denver Guy's ideas were not represented on the agenda. Only the mildest expressions of liberal thought were included.

There was another paper at the Ogden conference that boldly articulated a liberal position. It was by Brian Bull. He described the soul-bending strain of working in a church institution where he is expected to believe the dogma of the church while working in a research environment where the evidence overwhelmingly pointed to a long biochronology. For fifteen years he had kept to himself the inescapable implications for earth history of his own work. Like Guy, Bull's employment was no longer vulnerable, so he could speak freely. And like Guy, Bull's views were not represented in the final conference.

The second year's conference for North America was held at Glacier View Camp. Unlike the Ogden and Denver meetings, where the speakers were carefully selected and heavily weighted toward the defense of tradition, the Glacier View organizer welcomed pretty much everyone who wished to participate. As a result, this conference included many presentations that bluntly raised challenges to traditional Adventist creationism. Most of the challenges were raised by scientists--biologists, geologists, physicists. They were not saying they disbelieved 6 days/6000 years, they merely presented solid physical evidence that no one had found any way of making sense of in the context of a short chronology.

Toward the end of the week I was asked to work with two or three other people to craft a consensus statement. However, it turned out there was hardly anything we could say together. We all agreed God was the first word, the first reality, the foundation of not only life, but the universe itself. After that, we diverged.

The Denver conference was again organized by the General Conference and was by invitation only. It brought together an international group of presidents, theologians and scientists. The agenda and speakers were carefully controlled. As in Ogden, I was present but not a participant. The papers were a rehash of traditional Adventist scholarship in defense of 6 days/6000 years. There was relatively little science presented. When science was addressed it was usually from the perspective of philosophy of science. We were repeatedly reminded that science itself is a world view. It is not a value-neutral printout of nature, but is shaped by the worldviews of individual scientists and the science community.

One of the more pugnacious presenters was Fernando Canale. He constantly lamented the shallowness and lack of sophistication in Adventist philosophical discourse and none-too-subtly claimed for himself the requisite sophistication. He said, “The conflict between [creation and evolution metanarratives] then, will never be solved rationally, only eschatologically.” In other words, creationists cannot win the argument in this world, but we will win in the next world. He would be appalled at this simplification of his sophistication, but his view can be reduced to this: The only way to know the truth is to ignore science and form your world view wholly by reading the Bible.

It's a curious argument because the very language he uses to make this argument is not the language of heaven, but the earthy medium of English. And if he pushes us to be more “biblical” and master Hebrew and Greek, we are still working with the very earth-bound tools of lexicons and grammars which are informed in part by the findings of the ultimate earth-bound science, archeology.

It is not possible to put off our “truth finding” to a heavenly future, nor to limit our present quest for truth to Bible reading alone. We can't wait for heaven to make decisions. And we can't read the Bible without the aid of extra-biblical sources like dictionaries, grammars, and commentaries—all of which are shaped by earth-bound scholarship.

When this last conference was over a committee published a report. It was eight pages of reassurance that the Adventist Church remains fully committed to 6 days/6000 years. It affirmed repeatedly the priority of the Bible over science. Science is valuable, but any time there is conflict between the claims of science and the words of the Bible, the Bible must take precedence. The church is a theological society and theologians rule.

The report included three sentences that attempted to make room in the Church for scientists. Where Adventists in the past often dismissed scientists as infidels in search of a justification for their rejection of God and moral obligations, the committee wrote that the Church's disagreement with evolution “does not imply depreciation of either science or the scientist.” In a careful sentence that began by assuring readers that most of the people involved in these conferences held to our traditional views of earth history, “we recognize that some among us interpret the biblical record in ways that lead to sharply different conclusions.” Finally, the committee explicitly honored the value of scientific endeavor: “We accept that both theology and science contribute to our understanding of reality.”

The Church cannot change. We believe life first appeared during Creation week six thousand years ago. No matter what evidence a scientist may bring to the table, it is impossible for us to be convinced otherwise. We know already.

On the other hand, we cannot bring ourselves to excommunicate our scientists. We won't let them voice their opinions publicly. We will not hire them to teach in our schools if they say out loud they doubt 6 days/6000 years. But we want them as part of our church. We value them as persons even though we must reject their expertise.

This ambivalence was dramatically illustrated in an exchange at the Denver Faith and Science Conference. The setting was a panel discussion. On stage were Fernando Canale and two or three other strident conservatives who had pushed for the gathering to vote a resolution calling for sanctions against Adventist faculty who could not fully, unreservedly affirm 6 days/6000 years.

A theologian posed a question to the panel: “I held evangelistic meetings some years ago. A man attended the meetings and asked to be baptized. He was already attending church. He was keeping Sabbath at some considerable cost to himself. And he was paying tithe. However, he told me he had one problem. He just could not believe in a short chronology. My question to you: Would you baptize him?”

Canale responded: “That is not the question before us. We are here to debate the official doctrine of the church. And on that we must be crystal clear. We are talking about what is to be taught and preached in our church.”

The theologian would not let it go. He stood up. “We are a church not a theological society. What we say here and decide here is not merely about employment and doctrinal statements. You have made strong statements about the boundaries of acceptable thought. You've drawn lines and excluded people. I want to know, would you have baptized that scientist who came to my meetings.”

Canale hemmed and hawed. “The actual decision about baptizing someone is a pastoral decision that must be made with a full knowledge of the person. It's between the pastor and the person he's studying with.”

“But in this case the issue was clear. He didn't have secret personal issues. On the other hand he had a definite, explicit disagreement with our doctrine. He did not believe 6 days/6000 years. Would you baptize him?”

“Yes. Yes. If it comes to it. Based on what you've told us, yes, I would baptize him.”

The other conservatives on the panel agreed. Yes, they too, would have baptized the man in spite of his defective views on earth history.

Ultimately, it seems that the same force that has driven me to become a liberal is at work in the church as a whole—a high regard for individual human beings, a regard that sometimes overrides even our orthodoxy, our need to be right and make sure others do right.

In 2007, I resigned as editor of Adventist Today and embraced fully the obscurity of being “just a pastor.” The “guardians of orthodoxy” have pretty much left me alone. Those who sought my ouster—Robert Folkenberg, Al McClure, and Jerry Patzer—are gone. I am left free to serve my people. I preach sermons and visit people in the hospital. I officiate at weddings and dedicate babies. I listen to stories of hope and triumph and failure and grief and defeat. I share life with a group of saints and occasionally keep company with sinners. I see my primary job as making room in the family of God for people who might not otherwise know they are welcome. It seems to me that's not too far removed from the mission of our Master.

Chapter 68 Faith and Science Conferences

Faith and Science Conferences

In 2001, the Church announced it was going to hold a three year cycle of conferences on Faith and Science. Among Adventists, “Faith and Science” are code words for earth history. The Bible says “In six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them.” Genealogies give 4000 B. C. as an approximate date of that creation. The fossil record says single-celled organisms appeared on earth and over long ages evolved into modern life forms. Current conventional geochronolgy dates the beginning of this process at about 3.8 billion years ago.

Publicly, the Adventist Church had always been absolutely confident in 6 days/6000 years. Every article on the subject published in denominational magazines, every chapter in every book published by the denomination presented 6 days/6000 years as the clear teaching of the Bible and the best interpretation of scientific data.

In fact, for decades Adventist academics had debated the tension between the physical evidence and the Biblical narrative. In conversations with scientists I would hear about meetings convened to explore issues of origins. But I never saw any reports of these meetings in any denominational publications. In the years immediately before these Faith and Science Conferences, one of the outcomes of these closeted discussions was the general abandonment of the Ecological Zonation Theory. This had been Harold Clark's attempt to reconcile the geologic column with the Flood. At the time he proposed it, it was welcomed as a creative, responsible effort to be faithful to both the Bible and geology. But over time its supposed fit with the paleontological record proved untenable and it quietly disappeared from serious Adventist discussion of origins. These debates were never publicized. The papers presented were not widely circulated. As far as the larger church was concerned, Adventist scholars were universally confident of the scientific defensibility of our creation orthodoxy.

Now the Church was publicly acknowledging there were issues to be explored. I read the announcement of the Faith and Science Conferences with mixed feelings. My ambivalence was shared by others. Conservatives worried the conferences would bring into the open the paucity of scientific support for Adventist creationism. This could be the first step down the slippery slope. Liberals worried precisely the opposite. Bringing into the open the pervasiveness of doubts among Adventist science professors about the plausibility of 6 days/6000 years might become the catalyst for a purge.

It was impossible for the Church to change its doctrine. Twenty million people looked to the Church as their home, their spiritual guide. At least ninety-five percent of these believers had unquestioning confidence in our historic doctrine of Creation and 6 days/6000 years. They not only believed this is what the Bible teaches, they were sure there was massive scientific support for a recent creation and a world wide flood. If the denomination gave any sign of waffling on this doctrine it would unsettle the faith of millions.

On the other hand, no amount of pontification would change the fact that the weight of scientific evidence in support of an ancient creation was constantly augmenting. Those closest to the argument were being driven increasingly to the choice between utterly irreconcilable authorities—the Bible and Nature.

The only way forward for the Church that I could imagine was to reaffirm what it had always 
believed while perhaps acknowledging that individuals in the church were driven to aberrant views through honest, conscientious study.

The first conference brought together a select group of Adventist presidents, theologians and scientists from all over the world. They met at a hotel Ogden, Utah. I never heard why such an out-of-the-way location was chosen. I theorized it was to isolate the conference from the potential of being swamped by interested lay people.

The publisher of Adventist Today tried to secure an invitation to the conference for me as the editor of Adventist Today. Elder Lowell Cooper, the General Conference vice president organizing the conference responded that he could not allow Adventist Today access as a matter of fairness. If he allowed us in how could he say no to all the other people who were also clamoring for access to the meetings?

I replied to Elder Cooper that I understood his position and respected it, however, as the editor of a magazine committed to transparency and openness in the church, I was obligated to come to the conference venue and report as effectively as I could even if I did not attend the meetings.

On the shuttle from the airport to the hotel, I visited with a conservative theology teacher from Southern Adventist University. (Of course, there are only conservative theology teachers at SAU.) We had not met before but we knew of each other by reputation. He said he'd often read Adventist Today. His highest priority was to preserve the Church’s mission. God’s remnant church was called to preach God’s authority as Creator and Lawgiver. Surely, if the Church compromised its commitment to a literal reading of Genesis, it would lose its distinctiveness. It would lose its reason for existence.

I talked about the need for the Church to provide spiritual care for its scientists who were compelled by the evidence they worked with every day to believe life had been here a lot longer than six thousand years. He acknowledged my concern without giving an inch in his commitment to enforced doctrinal rectitude in Adventist education.

At the hotel I fell into conversation with a couple of physics professors. Their most optimistic dream for the conference was that there would be significant discussion of the issues and no consensus statement would be made. Because, they said, they could not imagine any conceivable “consensus statement” they could assent to.

That evening as I was eating at a small restaurant across the street from the hotel, a member of the organizing committee, found me and said he was bringing me a personal invitation from Lowell Cooper to participate fully in the meetings throughout Sabbath. Once the conference proper started on Sunday morning, I would need to be excluded, but until then I was welcome, including sharing meals. I was touched by this courtesy.

I hurried over to the meeting as soon as I finished my burrito. When I walked into the meeting room, people were gathered in groups. I stood there for a minute or two trying to see what was going on. Joe Galusha, a biologist friend, came over and explained they were gathered in groups according to the month of their birthdays. I found the March group. It consisted of Marvin Moore, Bob Cushman and Ed Zinke. Our assignment was to tell one another what we hoped for from the meeting.  
Marvin and Bob both hoped for civility, openness and genuine dialogue (my words but their sentiments). Ed Zinke spoke of recently rereading The Great Controversy with its championship of “the Bible and Bible Only” and its promise there would be a people in the last days who would accept the Bible above the false dogmas of science or any other source of knowledge. Zinke hoped the conference would result in a strong affirmation that Adventists were “that people.” (Ed was a trained theologian, but he was working as an executive in his wife's natural foods business. I strongly suspected his dollars had more to do with his presence than his scholarship.) I then talked about my desire for openness to ideas and to people so that our children would not be squeezed out of the church. 
After the group split up, Ed and I prayed together. They were clumsy prayers. What each of us really wanted, was divine intervention against the views the other represented. Ed represented to me the kind of doctrinaire biblicism that would exclude most scientists from the church. To him, I was the most dangerous kind of liberal–claiming to love and respect the church while questioning the fundamental assumption underlying its authority. He prayed truth would triumph. I prayed for the triumph of love.

After this small group exercise, we reassembled for the keynote address by Jan Paulsen, the General Conference president. He mentioned that this series of conferences grew out of a request originally voted by the Geoscience Research Institute (GRI) in 1998. GRI was the church office tasked with studying and defending the Church's doctrine of creation. In 1998, he, Paulsen, had been a vice-president of the Church and the chair of the GRI board. So, he said, we could understand his personal interest in the matters before us at the conference. 
He appealed for civility and mutual respect in our interactions, a firm confidence in the Bible as the word of God, a healthy skepticism about some of the claims of science, an openness to learn new things, an awareness of the world church and its members. He specifically questioned the uniformitarian ideas that undergird radiometric dating. He did not expect the conference to settle once and for all the questions surrounding origins.

The Sabbath morning sermon was preached by Dwight Nelson. He did a good job rhetorically. He tried to be civil, but in the end argued that science is irrelevant to the study of earth history. He argued our theory of earth history (at least that portion of earth history which involves fossils) must be compatible with the God of love described in 1 John 4. Perfect love casts out all fear. Since evolution necessarily involves fear it cannot have been God’s mode of creation. No matter what scientists find in their research, their conclusions must reconciled with the fact that life first appeared on earth 6000 years ago. Dwight told of listening to scientists as they struggled with the issues of earth history, but it was clear he listened only as a pastor. He worried about their struggles. He had no interest in their data. His own understanding of earth history was impervious to any so-called evidence that contradicted it.

After lunch, most of the conference participants went to Temple Square in Salt Lake City. I was invited by a scientist to join a group headed out to look at geology. We examined horn corals in an exposure of limestone in a road cut. A paleontologist familiar with area talked about the difficulty of accounting for the ecological assemblage in this formation if it had been deposited by the flood. Further east we looked at varves in a mudstone formation exposed in a canyon wall. Varves are layers of sediment laid down in lakes. The time it takes for one layer to form can vary from hours to years. In one part of the wall neat horizontal layers had been dramatically scrunched together and folded. The group had no particular interest in how this formation fit into Creationist or Evolutionist macro theories. They were just studying rocks and enjoying the commentary of the paleontologist who had studied the area and knew something of the overall geology.

Throughout the afternoon we observed the dramatic wave cut benches that mark the varying water levels of Lake Bonneville, a huge Pleistocene lake whose surface had been 400 feet higher than the present elevation of the Great Salt Lake. Lake Bonneville would have inundated all the present cities along the front of the Wasatch range–Provo, SLC, Ogden, Logan.

We returned to the hotel for a presentation by retired theologian George Reid. He began by narrating an encounter he had with students from Wesley Seminary which is located at American University in the D. C. area. He made much of the school's loss of religious identity. He said these students were fascinated by the way the Adventist story integrates so much of human experience and scripture. They went from curiosity to fascination.

He referred to the collapse of membership among mainline Protestants over the past 30 years and warned that if we compromised on our commitment to the plenary authority of the Bible we would follow them into decline.

Late that evening I was visiting in the lobby when I saw William Johnson, editor of the official church paper, The Adventist Review, and Don Schneider, president of the Church in North America. They had just arrived from the airport after speaking appointments elsewhere earlier in the day. I walked over to greet them while they were waiting to register at the front desk. Bill reached out to shake my hand,then embraced me. He immediately asked if there were going to be field trips. I told him, No there were not field trips planned, that I wasn’t an official participant, that I was there as a representative for Adventist Today. He then asked in kind of an agitated way, “Why are they having the conference here?”

I got the impression that he felt quite put out by the location and was expecting the adventure and stimulation of field trips as at least partial compensation for traveling to such a place for this conference. I was flattered he thought I would know information he was not yet privy to. He then turned to introduce me to Schneider. Schneider brushed aside the introduction. “Of course, I know John.” Then responding to my remark that I wasn’t officially invited, he asked, “Well, the meetings are open aren’t they?” 
No, they aren’t.” I said. “I guess they were worried too many crazies would show up if they opened the meetings to everyone.” He shook his head and they turned to greet others. I went to bed.

Sunday morning the conference got down to business. I was excluded from the meetings, but through friends had access to all the papers and reports on the debates.

Chapter 67 Pastor and Editor

Pastor and Editor

Leaving Voice of Prophecy and becoming “just a pastor” did not remove all the tension between my roles as church employee and editor of an independent news magazine. I believed I was serving the larger good of the Adventist Church in my role as editor. The church needed the scrutiny of an independent press. On the other hand, I was sympathetic to the pressures that sometimes drove administrators and committees to take actions that from the outside appeared indefensible.

The potential for conflict between my dual commitment to the moral integrity of the church and its reputation was demonstrated shortly after we moved to Washington. The General Conference president, Robert Folkenberg, was caught in a financial scandal. I never learned who blew the whistle on him, but other people in the top leadership of the denomination challenged him. His behavior was reminiscent of the abuse of position characteristic of Central American despots. I wondered at the time if his many years living in Central America had blinded him to the standards for avoiding conflict of interest that we take for granted in the U. S.

Adventist Today began reporting the story on our web site with information fed to us from church insiders. At the height of the crisis we were getting 10,000 hits per day as people around the world followed the story.

Later, I was told by people in the General Conference that if it had not been for the Adventist Today reporting, Folkenberg may well have weathered the conflict and remained in office. If the matter had remained “in house,” if it had been processed only by church officials meeting in formal committees, Folkenberg's supporters may well have been able to push back against those calling him to account. After all, his behavior would have been considered quite unremarkable in most of the world where most Adventists live. (More than 90 percent of the denomination lives in developing nations where the “privileges of power” are often taken for granted, more so than in the West.) The thousands of people following the story through the Adventist Today web site strengthened the hand of the reformers. In the end Folkenberg resigned.

One of the curious features of this episode was the flood of accusations sent our way without permission to name sources. Missionaries who had worked with Folkenberg alleged frequent irregularities in the way he dealt with customs. It was the kind of venality frequently mentioned by my parents in their stories about their missionary friends in Central America, though in Folkenberg's case it was taken to a “higher level” and with a direct personal benefit that was missing from the stories I was familiar with. People who told these stories sometimes were terrified of what would happen to them or their relatives in denominational employment if Folkenberg learned they had talked to us. He was seen as a highly effective administrator and ruthless. We published none of these rumors. But I could not help being influenced. We had no way to check the authenticity of all these accusations. But with all the smoke it was hard not to think there was probably a fire.

When I was offered the position of editor, I told the Adventist Today committee that I was exploring the possibility of another job and a new job might take me out of southern California. We agreed that if I did move out of the area, I would resign. So, sometime in 1999, I tendered my resignation. It was rejected. So I continued on balancing the competing demands of pastoring and editing, both of which deserved my entire attention.

After my resignation was rejected, I called Jere Patzer, the president of the North Pacific Union (the denominations regional body). Patzer was a famous (or notorious, depending on your perspective) conservative. Not only was his theology classic old school Adventism, he was an activist, driving administrator. He and I already had a bit of history. A few months before moving to Washington, we had decided to publish a transcript of speech Patzer had given. When I contacted him about publishing the piece, he said he didn't feel free to give me permission to publish it because of “counsel” he had received from Elder Folkenberg. I told him I wasn't asking permission. His speech was in a public setting. It addressed issues of interest to the larger Adventist population. We were going to publish it with or without his permission. And he could quote me to Folkenberg. I went on to say, that while I was not giving him a choice about whether or not we published his speech, I was offering him the opportunity to edit it with a view toward publication. I offered to edit it and send my version to him for review. He agreed. He approved the final version we published.

So, now that I was pastoring in his territory, I figured we better have an understanding. When I called, our conversation went something like this.

Hi Elder Patzer. I'm just calling to let you know I've moved to Washington. My plan had been that when I moved here I would resign as the editor of Adventist Today, but they have refused my resignation. So I will continue. I know that you have a lot of influence here and you could get rid of me if you wished, so I'm calling to persuade you to leave me alone.”

Okay, give it a shot.”

I often hear from Adventist professionals who tell me they were thinking of leaving the church. Then someone sent them an issue of Adventist Today. They became subscribers and now the magazine is their primary connection with the church. Many of these professionals are sending their children to Adventist academies and colleges. If these professionals decide to leave the church, the church will not lose just them. It will lose them and their children and their grandchildren.

If they stay in the church, even if their personal religion is not up to par, they will send their children to Adventist schools. The church will have an opportunity to present our faith in its entirety to the next generations. If these families leave, they may well never hear the Adventist message. As professionals they are unlikely to attend an evangelistic meeting. So, I think it serves the purposes even of the institutional church to keep me as the editor of Adventist Today and as a pastor in the employment of the church.”

Patzer agreed to give me some space. He was not giving me carte blanche, but he would wait and see. Some months later, I called him again.

Elder Patzer,” I said. “I've been reading over the schedule for the upcoming Union Ministerial Meetings.” (This was a week-long conference/continuing education extravaganza held every five years in connection with elections of officers for the Northwest region of the denomination. There were a couple of plenary sessions daily and a wide variety of seminar-style presentations.) I said to Patzer, “I don't see a single presentation in the entire conference that even hints of connecting with the more liberal wing of the church. You should have at least one seminar that addresses how to communicate our faith to a liberal or secular audience. I could do that for you. I have an approach to the Sabbath that very effectively engages people outside our usual devout Christian audience. I think you should include me on the schedule.”
“Send me a manuscript and let me take a look at it.”

I emailed him the manuscript of my presentation, “Sabbath, a Park in Time.” He put me on the seminar schedule.

Patzer eventually wearied of tolerating me and pressured the local conference president to get rid of me. But to my surprise two successive local presidents resisted his pressure. I remained employed by the church.

Chapter 66 Incompatibility

There were some obvious incongruences between my identity as the writer/producer of the Voice of Prophecy and my identity as the editor of Adventist Today. While in the days of its founder H. M. S. Richards, Sr., Voice of Prophecy had been a venturesome and even controversial ministry, over the decades it had been one of the most venerable institutions in the Adventist Church. It was a trusted brand—by church administrators, by pastors, by the laity.

Adventist Today, on the other hand, was an upstart. It was controversial by nature. It was feared and disliked by church administrators. It was condemned by many conservative members for “tearing down” the church. Even though I aspired to give the magazine a more positive focus, there was no escaping the fact the had published and would continue to publish articles that gave attention to scandals in church administration and to the challenges to Adventist orthodoxy that arose primarily from academics and intellectuals.

In accepting the editorship I knew I was risking my employment. At minimum I knew I was closing the possibility for any “upward” move in the denomination. I took the position for a couple of reasons. First, it was offered. My guess is I would have gladly worked for any of the Adventist journals—The Adventist Review, Signs of the Times, Ministry. By this time, after six years of constant writing, I was confident of my ability to put Adventist beliefs into good words. I could have served usefully as an associate in any of these denominational publications.

Second, it offered an avenue of ministry most closely aligned with what I saw as my special gifts. The target audience was educated, intellectual Adventists. I was confident I could articulate an attractive vision of Adventism to this demographic. I strongly suspected that people in that demographic were more likely to read a “defense of the faith” if it was published in an independent magazine. The independence and controversial nature of the magazine which alienated church administrators were precisely the credentials I needed to be able to gain the attention of these people with Adventist roots and skeptical natures.

Curiously it was not my work as editor of Adventist Today that got me in hot water with denominational leaders. It was the paper I presented at the Faith and Science Conference at Andrews University. As I mentioned in an earlier chapter, conservatives at the Seminary thanked me for my presentation. They would not have agreed with everything I said, but they affirmed the pastoral concern I called for, and they appreciated my public stance which they imagined enlarged the thinking room in the church. My public articulation of my views helped create space for conservatives to creatively wrestle with the issues involved in theology and earth history.

A couple of months after the conference, I was summoned to a meeting of the program department, the manager of Voice of Prophecy and Melashenko. Melashenko led the meeting.
I've received a letter from Al McClure (the president of the Adventist Church in the U.S. And Canada) with a note by Elder Folkenberg (the president of the international church). They have asked me about your employment here at the Voice of Prophecy. They have read a paper you wrote about evolution and the Sabbath. They believe it reflects negatively on the ministry of the Voice of Prophecy.”

I was surprised. I had not published the paper. Not that it was private or secret, but I certainly had no idea that the presidents of the North American Division and the General Conference were reading what I wrote.

Melashenko tried to ease the sting of his message by comparing my situation to his embarrassment a month or two earlier when he had written a strongly-worded defense of an evangelist who had been accused of a romp with a mistress. A few weeks later video of the evangelist and the woman turned up, video the evangelist himself had taken! Melashenko had egg all over his face.

I strongly disagreed with the parallel Melashenko was attempting to draw. I pointed out that in his case, once he knew the facts and faced the consequences of his letter, he strongly wished he had never written it. I was not embarrassed. I had written my paper after decades of studying the facts. Facing the reality of negative consequences from writing the paper, I would do it again gladly because my commitment to pastoral care for scientists in the church was greater than my commitment to career preservation.

A few weeks later, Cyril Miller, one of the vicepresidents of the General Conference and the chairman of the Voice of Prophecy board, was on campus. He came to see me. I enjoyed the visit immensely, for all the wrong reasons. Miller had a reputation as a tough, even ruthless, administrator. I had heard stories of people called into his office. However, instead of calling me into a conference room or some other place for a private conversation, he came to my cubicle.

His demeanor appeared mild and diffident. My read was that he suddenly realized that cubicles offer no privacy. Everything we said could be heard over the partitions. Or perhaps his reputation was undeserved. In any case there was no bullying on his part. We had a respectful conversation about my plans. He explained that the reason the church presidents were so concerned about my paper was my identity as a writer/producer at the Voice of Prophecy. That was a high status position in the denomination. They could not afford to have someone in a position with so great responsibility questioning our absolute commitment to creationism. He was happy to hear that I was pursuing employment elsewhere. 
Suddenly, I had a new worry. “I have a question.” I said. “ Let's say I get a job as a pastor somewhere. And I pack up my family and we move. How far are you guys going to chase me? I don't want to move away from all my friends and support system here only to end up jobless and friendless in a strange place six months later.”

“Oh, you don't need to worry about that. If you are just a pastor, your views won't be a matter of concern.”

I have often replayed those words: If you're just a pastor . . .”

In October of 1998 we moved to Washington where I became pastor of North Hill Christian Fellowship, a six-year-old congregation in the suburbs of Tacoma.

Monday, January 9, 2012

65. Geochronology, the Sabbath and Death before Sin

Note: This is a paper I presented in July, 1998, at a conference on faith and science at Andrews University, sponsored by Andrews and the North American Department of Education. There are several references to the paper on the web, but the actual text is not available elsewhere, so I'm posting it here. To be clear: I'm posting as a historical document not because I think it represents the latest and best thinking on the subject.


John McLarty

Abstract: McLarty identifies the seventh-day Sabbath as crucial for SDA self-understanding and unity, but questions our use of the Sabbath as an epistemological principle. High regard for the Sabbath and for conventional geochronology are not mutually exclusive. One possible solution is to see the Genesis One account as a poetic expansion of a creation event that lasted one week but which was a local creation of a habitat for humanity rather than the creation of all fauna, flora, and land forms. The paper also includes some hypotheses regarding death before sin.

Sabbath afternoon in Zion National Park. There were four of us, an engineer, a geologist, an entomologist and a theologian. The topic of conversation? Earth history, of course. And not the date of the Big Bang or the age of Precambrian granites, but the question of when life first appeared on earth.

We all freely acknowledged the paucity of our knowledge. We admitted the existence of problematic data no matter what position we took. There wasn’t much dogmatism that day. But then someone raised the question I’ve heard in nearly every Adventist discussion of geochronology: What about the Sabbath? Isn’t a literal interpretation of Genesis One1 and the seventh-day Sabbath inextricably linked? If we give up our belief that all terrestrial life forms have their ultimate origin in a single week a few thousand years ago won’t we also lose the Sabbath?

After kicking around some possible solutions to the Sabbath question, the entomologist raised the other perennial question: If you accept conventional geochronology, then how do you handle the matter of death before sin?

The question about the Sabbath is primarily an Adventist question. The question about death before sin has broad ramifications in classic Christian theology.

The Sabbath Issue

Sabbath comes close to being the essential glue that holds us together. We can argue about the meaning of the cross, the role of faith and works, the authority of Ellen White, the nature of

Biblical revelation/inspiration, the meaning of the Apocalypse, and proper Christian dress and video customs. But then we come to the end of the week and interrupt our frenzied lives with
Sabbath habits—special meals, Sabbath School classes, corporate worship, distinctive music, even in some places distinctive radio and TV habits. Sabbath, probably more than any other habit or belief, connects Adventists across the amazingly diverse philosophical/theological spectrum of Adventism.

Given the crucial role Sabbath plays in our Adventist identity, it’s only natural that devotees of Adventism would vigorously combat anything that undermines our church’s appreciation of the Sabbath. And without question, many Adventists, scientists and lay people alike, have seen conventional geochronology as a serious threat to our Sabbath doctrine and practice.

I do not have the chutzpah to suggest this paper can settle all the questions. But I do insist that what follows demonstrates the possibility of holding a high regard for Scripture AND an openness to conventional theories of earth history.


I betray my conclusion with my title2. At times we Adventists talk as though Sabbath is the ultimate test of Biblical interpretation and scientific veracity. If something challenges the Sabbath it must be false. In practice we’re treating the Sabbath as an ultimate epistemological test.

But Sabbath is not the touchstone of truth. Jesus is. If the starting point for one’s theology is the historic Adventist understanding of the mark of the beast, then perhaps we could justify giving Sabbath a normative role judging truth. But if one’s starting point is more Christian, that is if our starting point is a conviction that God has spoken to us through His Son and the record of the Son in The Word, then it seems to me misguided to make a theory’s implications for Sabbath-keeping the ultimate litmus test.

What if we found out the Bible did not teach that ALL terrestrial life forms originated from the flora and fauna which first appeared during a seven-day creation week six thousand years ago? What if we discovered that the Bible did not intend for us to understand that Australia’s protomarsupials disembarked from Noah’s Ark? Would we still believe these things to avoid losing the Sabbath? What if nature itself bore unmistakable witness to several million years of life history? Would we still insist on a life history in the magnitude of thousands of years just to preserve the Sabbath?

To state it bluntly, it would be highly unethical to oppose theories that were true but which we refused to believe merely because they contradicted other theories that were precious to us. It would be unethical to reject a biochronology of millions of years in order to maintain our Sabbath witness if we, in fact, could locate compelling evidence for just such a biochronology. Sabbath is precious, but it does not justify obfuscation. It cannot be made the final measure of truth.

Old Earth Sabbath Keepers: Oxymoron or Fact?

Is the customary Adventist linkage of a young earth and single creation week with the Sabbath logically or experientially necessary? To answer the second part of the question first: it is quite possible to be a devotee of the Sabbath and not believe in conventional SDA creation chronology. I could name several Adventist scientists and theologians who do not believe the conventional Adventist biochronology, but are committed, glad Sabbath keepers. Experientially the linkage is not essential. (Conversely, some of the most doctrinaire “young-agers” are Sunday-keepers.)

What about the logical linkage of Sabbath and geochronology? Can a person read the Bible with any kind of reverence and still question the traditional SDA chronology? This question becomes particularly acute for someone who has grown up in the church believing wholeheartedly in a conventional short chronology but then encounters what seems to be irrefutable evidence for a long chronology. If the only way a person can believe in Sabbath keeping is to first believe in young earth creationism, then our young people who no longer believe the traditional short chronology have no choice but to leave the Adventist Church.

I am convinced it is quite possible to sustain Sabbath convictions without belief in a single, seven-day creation week a few thousand years ago. First of all because of my personal acquaintance with Sabbath keepers who accept uncritically conventional geochronology. Secondly, because I see several logical foundations on which to build a defense of Sabbath-keeping which do not include a literalistic reading of Genesis One.

Support for Sabbath other than Genesis 1

How can a person believe in keeping the seventh-day Sabbath and at the same time read Genesis One as myth or figurative poetry?

1. The Sabbath commandment is given twice in the Mosaic corpus: In Exodus 20 it is said to be rooted in the creation week. In Deuteronomy it is rooted in Israel’s experience of deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Sabbatarians have long noted that these are complementary rather than contradictory rationales for Sabbath-keeping. However that may be, Deuteronomy gives a distinctly different basis for Sabbath-keeping from that found in Exodus. In Deuteronomy the Sabbath commandment is completely independent of the Creation story.
Deuteronomy 5. Isaiah 58. Jeremiah 17. Ezekiel 20.

2. The example of Jesus and the Apostles would be quite sufficient as a rationale for Sabbath-keeping, even if one did not have Genesis One and Two. The founder of our faith was a Sabbath keeper. He declared himself “Lord of the Sabbath.” And his followers were Sabbath keepers in the decades immediately following his death and resurrection.

3. The origins of Sunday sacredness are highly suspect. The modern Protestant practice of reducing Sunday religious practice to church attendance only, avoiding any pretense of holiness for the day, [see Dorothy Bass, editor. Practicing Our Faith, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco. 1997] is much more defensible on the basis of ancient Christian practice than Puritan Sunday sacredness. But it fails to satisfy the human need for a holy day.

Reinterpreting Genesis 1 and 2

1. In the Adventist understanding of hell, we have always insisted that language with obvious chronological meanings must be interpreted in the light of theology. Chronology is a servant of theology, not the other way around. When Jesus talked about the unending torment of gehenna and John wrote about “the smoke of their torment ascending up forever and ever” we make no apology for insisting that these chronological statements be reinterpreted in the light of our conviction that God would not supernaturally sustain life for the purpose of dispensing unending torment. We understand this language about unending torment to refer to the unalterability of the verdict rather than the duration of the punishment.

Applying this same principle to Genesis One we might read the Creation Week narrative as a statement of divine intention or attention rather than as statement of chronology. The story of Genesis One tells us that Almighty God involved himself with earth and did so at the very beginning with the ultimate purpose of bringing into existence creatures capable of intimate fellowship with their Creator.

2. There are many instances in the Bible of straightforward statements that we unquestioningly reinterpret because of what we know are “the facts.” Daniel told Nebuchadnezzar, “you have become great and grown strong, and your majesty has be come great and reached to the sky and your dominion to the end of the earth.” Daniel 4:22. The Mediterranean famine in Joseph’s time was said to be “severe in all the earth.” Genesis 41:57. Acts refers to a famine which affected people “all over the world.” Acts 11:28. And Paul declared the gospel had reached “all the world.” Colossians 1:6. In every one of these instances we understand “the world” to refer to a geographical fragment of what we mean by “the world.” “The world” for these Biblical writers was smaller than what we mean by the same term.

Applying this to Genesis One we might conclude that the writer’s global language referred to events which, from our perspective, were local rather than global.

2A. We don’t believe the ancient world view offered in the Bible. Rev. 7:1 Four corners of the earth. Job 26:8. Wrapping the waters. Job 9:5,6. pillars. Gen. 7:11; 8:2 Flood gates of heaven.

6. There are many instances in the Bible of local phenomena being understood to have global spiritual significance. The divine selection of Abraham is seen not merely as the launching of a particular tribe or ethnic group. His choice somehow is a choice for all mankind. When Isaiah describes the inclusion of non-Jews and disqualified Jews in the congregation of God’s people (Isaiah 56) we immediately understand this to portray the inclusion of all kinds of “unacceptable” people among the people of God. Psalm 87 describes the reckoning of Babylonians, Egyptians and Philistines as natives of Jerusalem. Preachers immediately broaden this to portray the inclusion of all kinds of rejects in the people of God.
Gen. 12:1-3 cf. Rom 4
Deut. 4:34 cf. 1 Pet. 2:9
Deut 5:6 cf Rev. 14:12
Isa. 43 and 56: National language which we apply to current believers.
Ps. 87
Rev. 21.

Jerusalem is used by the New Testament writers as a metaphor for heaven. Israel is spiritualized to the people of God. Babylon becomes the forces of evil.

Israel was challenged to be kind to aliens because they themselves had been aliens in Egypt. But we apply this to our own treatment of immigrants. The declaration “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” comes in a list that includes things like rules for how many days meat from a sacrifice may be kept and eaten, prohibitions against interbreeding two different kinds of cattle, interplanting two crops in a field, cutting the body in mourning or “rounding off the side-growth of your heads.” But we have no problem at all separating the enduring, universally applicable rule “love your neighbor” from the local “do not harm the edges of your beard.” (All references in this paragraph are from Leviticus 19).

Applying the same principle to Genesis One, it would be quite possible to believe both that Genesis One referred to something smaller and more local than the creation of all fauna, flora and terrestrial landforms (as well as the sun, moon and stars) and still believe that its words about the Sabbath teach us something vital for all humanity.

New Ways of Reading the Bible and Geology

The last three points in the previous section already suggest non-traditional (within Adventism) ways of reading the Biblical text which allow for an easier harmonization of Scripture and conventional geology. Since I am a theologian, not a scientist, I can more readily suggest examples of bending that can be done by theologians. At the same time without any hesitation or timidity I challenge scientists to question the orthodoxy in their own tradition. The fact that all geologists believe something doesn’t make it true. I have worked in the field of manuscript collation and often struggle to suppress a guffaw or two when I read statements about the “assured results of scholarship” in connection with textual criticism. Those “assured results” include huge amounts of conjecture dignified by age and the academic credentials of the conjecturers. Earth science has much more data to work with than does textual criticism, but I doubt the human factors in the respective fields are much different.

I challenge scientists to cultivate at least as healthy a skepticism about the orthodoxy of science as they have about the orthodoxies of religion. Potentially one of the values of young earth creation scientists is that they keep the pot boiling. They ask impolite questions. At times, they make preposterous assertions. They “see” things that aren’t there. But at least they are roiling the status quo or in the words of the bumper sticker, they “Question Authority.”3

Our great need as Adventists is not for scientists who are committed to young earth creationism. That presupposes too much; it precludes too much. But we do need scientists who will actively look for ways to articulate the agreement of geology and Scripture. We need scientists conversant with a number of different fields who will look for ways to interpret the data that are faithful both to the tangible facts and to the spiritual insight of Scripture.

One Model

One way to understand Genesis One is to see it as the poetic expansion or globalization of a local creation event. Behind Genesis One is a particular creation week during which God prepared a local habitation for the first humans, the Garden of Eden.

Moses took the events of that week and used them to symbolize God’s global involvement and his anthropocentrism. The week which began human history is seen as the beginning of time. The creation of the animals which supported human life—domestic sheep, domestic cattle, horses, dogs, camels—is pictured as the creation of all animals. The creation of the plants on which humans depend—grains, fruit trees—is portrayed as the creation of all flora.

I’ve been intrigued by what appears to be a convergence at about ten thousand years ago of the appearance of Cro-Magnon people, grain culture, and some domestic animals. Is this “scientific” evidence for a creation?

This approach preserves the Adventist understanding of Creation Week as a literal seven-day period in which God prepared a special habitation for the primeval humans. His resting at the end of this week would still have the rich theological meaning expounded by Barth and other theologians. It would still carry the imperatives Adventists and other Sabbatarians have preached.

Whether the first Sabbath came at the end of the week which saw the creation of all flora, fauna, land forms and celestial bodies or marked the end of the week in which God climaxed creation history by preparing a special home and then creating Adam and Eve, Sabbath would remain a premier expression of God’s desire for relationship with his creatures. It would speak of grace and obedience.

Why Should We Bother with Geochronology?

Why should the SDA denomination publicly open the question of geochronology? Our system has built a reputation as a defender of a short geochronology. Many of our members are quite happy with our current public stance and would be upset if it were altered. So why bother?

I have no personal need for my model to be accepted. If tomorrow my views were declared heretical and I was defrocked and disfellowshiped, I’m sure it would hurt, but I’d survive. And my faith in God would survive. I’m too old to change that.

My concern is not for myself or other “Boomers” but for the young people I meet who are wrestling with the difference between what they can believe and what the church declares is essential Adventism. When a young person goes off to college or graduate school and comes to the conclusion that short age creationism is not tenable I don’t want that young person to be forced to choose between the community of faith and the community of science. These are not mutually exclusive communities. Many of us who are older have found our own, at-times- difficult-and-painful way between the conflicting demands of these communities. We don’t want our children and our grandchildren to face the same wrenching conflicts we did.

I remember hearing H. M. S Richards, Jr. speak to the pastors of Greater New York Conference. Speaking specifically of questions surrounding earth history he declared, “If you don’t believe it [the SDA short age tradition], then you should have the courage and integrity to resign and get out.” I don’t remember if I actually wrote a resignation letter or if I merely composed it in my mind a hundred times, but I came very close to resigning. It seemed to me the only way. This, in spite of having entered the ministry with a very strong sense of “divine call.”

Several years later, Richards sat in the committee that interviewed me for a position as a writer at Voice of Prophecy. In that interview I was forthright about my geochronological questions. I was hired. But I doubt I’ll ever forget the months of agony as I weighed the question: Could I be an Adventist pastor with integrity and still have the opinions I did about geochronology? I don’t want my children to endure that kind of pain. Life is hard enough already.

When Richards made that unequivocal statement to the pastors of Greater New York Conference, he did not intend to make me unwelcome in the church. (Witness my hiring by the Voice of Prophecy to write sermons for him to read on international radio.) He was speaking out of his profound loyalty to the denomination and his belief at that time that anyone who questioned traditional SDA earth history was undermining the Church. I’m not asking the church to re-educate its grandmothers regarding the proper interpretation of Genesis One. I am urging us to make room in our church for our children whatever their persuasions regarding geology.

Columbia, Missouri story: Man who called me after my letter to the editor appeared in the Review. He was on the verge of resigning his church membership because he thought he was the only Adventist with questions about geochronology. Because I was a minister and had the same questions he decided there was room in the church for him.

Ladell Fisher told me her brother was a geologist. He has dropped out of the church because he could not accept a short chronology.

If we are honest, we must confront the reality that many of the people in our denomination who challenge our belief in a short chronology began their study in pursuit of scientific evidence supportive of our tradition. They gave up a short chronology only with great reluctance and in the face of overwhelming evidence. Hare, Lugenbeal, Ritland, to name some famous ones. And there are many others as well.

It’s time to reject chronological concerns as the center of our spiritual life and theology. In our early days our obsession with chronology led to the great disappointment. We still like to say we got the chronology right but the event wrong. Well, maybe something like that is true with creation week. Yes, something happened a few thousand years ago. But maybe it wasn’t the first appearance of life on this planet. Maybe it didn’t involve literally the whole world. Maybe it wasn’t the first time God intervened on earth. Maybe it wasn’t the last. And if we got the event wrong, is it all that significant that we got the date right?

Death before Sin

What about death before sin? This question has broad roots in classic Christian theology. Forgive my giving a ten cent answer to a million dollar question, but just a few suggestions of some directions we might look for answers:

The uniqueness of humans. All of nature is declared to be God’s doing, to be the fruit of God’s creativity. But only humans are said to be created IN THE IMAGE OF GOD. Is immortality part of the imago dei? When the Bible declares that Adam and Eve would die if they ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, did that mean that all of creation was deathless until that time or that by eating from the tree humans would sink to the condition of the animals through their disobedience? Is it possible that deathlessness a unique gift given to humans alone of all creation?

The Tree of Life. It appears that even Adam and Eve had only conditional immortality. When separated from the tree of life they died. Would this have been the result even if they hadn’t sinned? Why did they need to eat from the tree? The very existence of the tree of life suggests that Adam and Eve did not live in a deathless world. Did animals eat from the tree of life also? What if they did? What if they didn’t?

The difference between pre-fall and post-fall nature. If there was a deathless world before sin, then pre-fall nature was so radically different from what it is now that we probably can know NOTHING of the pre-sin world by studying nature. In fact, the difference between that world and ours would be so great that the present world would have to be the result of a complete recreation. If the deathless world of creation transformed into our world with its cycles of decay and birth, its predation and parasitism, through natural processes, it would represent a rate of change that could easily accommodate the evolutionary changes from the Cambrian through the Pleistocene in a very few years indeed. I.e. Darwinism is more plausible.

The Atonement. Human death has a unique meaning rooted in the unique position of humans as the image of God. If we conclude not all death is the result of sin, that in no way undermines the significance of the cross. In classic Christian theology, the cross was necessary not because of the existence of death (human or otherwise) but because of the existence of sin. And of all terrestrial creatures only humans were capable of sin. For Almighty God death is an easy problem to solve. The warping of the moral fabric of the universe by the sinful choices of humans or “gods” creates a much larger problem. And it was that warping and associated problems that the death of Jesus addressed.


While Adventists have understandable concerns about potential threats to our convictions about the Sabbath and our understanding of the connection between death and sin, openness to conventional geochronology does not necessarily undermine either doctrinal cluster. This paper presents just one approach to harmonizing Adventism and conventional biochronology. If the church were more open, it is my conviction that the creative tension between devotion to the Bible and love of the natural sciences would prompt the publishing of a variety of useful and interesting answers to these long-standing questions.


1Throughout the article I will refer to Genesis One. I know that the first creation narrative continues through Genesis 2:3. I also know there are other passages which refer to the creation story as recounted in Genesis One. Still it is a convenient shorthand.

2The formation of the title is taken from the cautionary statements intended by the words Bibliolatry (worship of the book rather than the God who stands above the book) and Mariolatry (idolizing Mary instead of joining her in adoring her Son).

3Okay, okay. I know there’s another way to view this. It’s possible that the activism of young-earth creationists has slowed the advance of science by making it even more politically dangerous for mainstream scientists to question the orthodoxy of the system. If you question orthodoxy you have to be very careful to dissociate yourself from any sympathy for the “crazies.”

John McLarty is a writer and producer for The Voice of Prophecy and editor of Adventist Today. The opinions expressed in this paper are entirely his own and do not necessarily reflect those of The Voice of Prophecy or Adventist Today.